Africa’s first elected female president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has just be awarded a $5 million prize that celebrates leaders who dedicate themselves to improving life in their countries. 

Sirleaf, who stepped down as Liberia’s president last month, has been announced as the winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership. 

She was honored for her work leading Liberia out of devastation following its civil war, and leading the reconciliation process, according to the prize committee.

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“Sirleaf took the helm of Liberia when it was completely destroyed by civil war and led a process of reconciliation that focused on building a nation and its democratic institutions,” said Salim Ahmed Salim, the head of the prize committee. 

“Though her two terms in office, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the people of Liberia. Such a journey cannot be without some shortcomings and, today, Liberia continues to face many challenges,” he continued. 

“Nevertheless, during her 12 years in office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf laid the foundations on which Liberia can now build,” he said. 

Read more: Africa's First Female President Bans FGM on Her Last Day in Office

To qualify for the prize, leaders have to have left office within the past three years, to have been democratically elected, and have served their constitutionally mandated term, reported the Guardian

But the bar for winning it is so high that it has only been awarded five times in the past 11 years — as it is only given when the leader is deemed truly worthy of the award. In 2016, no prize was awarded.

“The prize is intended to highlight and celebrate truly exceptional leadership, which is uncommon by its very definition,” added Salim.

The prize committee acknowledged the accusations against Sirleaf of tolerating corruption, and still decided that, through difficult circumstances, she had shown exceptional leadership that deserved recognition. 

Read more: 7 Times Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Came First

The committee added that Liberia was the only one out of 54 countries to improve in every category and sub-category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, reported the BBC

Since becoming the first woman in Africa to be elected as president in 2006, Sirleaf has been claiming “firsts” all over the place. 

Forbes listed her as the most powerful African woman in the world in 2006, for example, and in 2011, she and Leymah Gbowee became Liberia’s first Nobel Prize recipients. They jointly won the prize for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women, and for the right of women to participate fully in peace-building work. Liberia was also one of the countries hit hardest by the Ebola pandemic, but Sirleaf led the country through it.

In her final day in office, in January, Sirleaf also signed an executive order banning female genital mutilation (FGM) in Liberia for a year. 

Read more: FGM Happens in the UK, But Is Obscured by a Very British Silence

The ban made it an offense to perform FGM on anyone under 18, reported the claiming “firsts” all over, but it can still be carried out on adults with their consent.

Campaigners said FGM should be banned outright as even women who gave consent often did so under pressure, and are now pushing for Liberia’s new president George Weah to lead on achieving a permanent law. 

Sirleaf served two terms as president, but couldn’t run again in recent elections. Instead, former Chelsea and Milan footballer turned politician Weah was elected. 

Her party has expelled Sirleaf following Weah’s election, after it accused her of supporting Weah’s campaign rather than her own party’s candidate. 

Read more: 15 Reasons African Countries Aren't 'Shitholes'

The $5 million is spread over 10 years, and it is then followed by $200,000 a year for the rest of the prize winner’s life. 

It’s named for its creator, the British-Sudanese BT engineer Mo Ibrahim who became a telecommunications billionaire. 

Other previous winners of the award are: 

  • 2007, Mozambique’s former president, Joaquim Chissano
  • 2008, Botswana’s former president, Festus Mogae
  • 2011, Cape Verde’s former president, Pedro Verona Pires
  • 2014, Namibia’s former president, Hifikipunye Pohamba

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Liberia’s Ex-President Sirleaf Just Won $5 Million Prize for Exceptional Leadership

By Imogen Calderwood